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8:27PM

Gruden after the 0-2 start: ‘No regrets’

  ALAMEDA, Calif.—This is what Jon Gruden wanted. Well, not exactly. He didn’t want to lose the first two games on his return to coaching. He didn’t want to feel forced to trade away probably his best player, Khalil Mack. He wanted to be in charge of an NFL team once more, and so he is, with all the problems that brings.

  Even Monday, another day after, another day to get peppered with the questions he used to ask—or at least hint at—Gruden indicated there were no regrets.

  Coaches coach. Maybe John Madden secure in his well-earned reputation, not to mention the East Bay real estate holdings, was able to resist the call. But Dick Vermeil, Joe Gibbs and one of Gruden’s recent ESPN colleagues, Herman Edwards, stepped away from microphones and back into the line of fire.

   Gruden was not naïve. He knew the drill. He knew the misfortunes. He knew he was a star on Monday nights with a salary equal to his status. But deep down he was and is a football coach, and that can bring as much pain as satisfaction.

   A game the Oakland Raiders never trailed. Until the final 10 seconds. Until the only time that mattered. A game the Raiders lost on field goal, 20-19, because the Denver Broncos were able to move the ball from their own 20 to the Oakland 18 in a minute 48 seconds, allowing that 36-yard kick in the gut—uh, over the crossbar by Brandon McManus.

  A game that perfectly set up questions about the defensive line and the lack of Mack, who might have made a difference on that drive. Might. Gruden knew that was coming. He understands the game and the business.

   “I think we said after the game,” Gruden said to a packed media room at Raiders HQ, “we got to make improvements there. Across the board we got to make improvements.”

  But he doesn’t have to second-guess himself, at least in a public forum, with cameras and microphones and oh so many digital recorders and note pads.

  “No,” he answered about sending Mack away. “It doesn’t make me regret. We made the trade. We made the trade.”

  Not so nice had had to say it twice, but he did.

  “There has got to be hindsight. 50-50, all that stuff.”

  To be sure without Mack, the pass rusher, the All-Pro, there was no stuff, the type that stops an offense where he tried to start.

  “I would have loved to have had him,” said Gruden, quite forthright. “And I’m not going to keep rehashing this. I would have loved to have coached him, loved to have had him here. But he’s not here. Somebody’s got to step up.

  “We got to keep building our football team, and that’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, we see more from Arden Key, we see more from P.J. Hall when he gets healthy. Hopefully we prove that in the long term we did the right thing.” 

  Players win games. Derek Carr, criticized obliquely the previous game, against the Rams, for not being decisive, nearly won this one, setting a team completion percentage record. Amari Cooper, 10 receptions for 116 yards, nearly won this one. Marshawn Lynch, 65 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, nearly won this one.

  It’s hard to know whether Mack could have won this one, but the future draft picks the Raiders acquired didn’t do a thing. Indeed, that’s a gratuitous comment. The Raiders are what they are, which is an NFL team on the verge—of what no one can say, including the head coach.

  Gruden was asked what he saw from the first two games--two losing games, one of them well played, that made him think the Raiders still could be a contender—although truth tell he never even implied that, much less said it directly.

   “I’m not going to sit here and make predictions here today,” he said, sitting there. “I’m not going to do it. We’re going to keep building our football team. Whether that translates into one win or four wins or any wins . . . I’m not going to make any predictions about anything other than we’re going to play hard and provide the best effort we can.”

 As he departed, Gruden walked through the door and into one more question. Did he wish he hadn’t left ESPN for what surrounded him?

  “Not at all,” Gruden said. You sensed he very much meant it, and the heck with Khalil Mack.

8:40PM

Gruden and Raiders: Can he go home again?

ALAMEDA Calif.—You’re a Raiders fan—an Oakland Raiders fan—and you wonder what they’re going to do to you next? Your loyalty goes unrewarded. Your frustration is ignored.

  The new coach, who used to be the old coach, said he came back because he had something to prove. Where’s he going to prove it, in Las Vegas?

  The team isn’t very good, which can’t be blamed on the coach—except he was involved in trading the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, for draft picks,  some of whom, it the timetable holds, will not be on team until it’s no longer in Oakland,.

  The coach ought to know about giving up people who matter for potential. draftees. Nearly 20 years ago he was the guy who mattered, the coach of a Raiders team that was in the playoffs, that in a couple seasons would win a Super Bowl. But Jon Gruden had been swapped for draft picks who never did very much.

  When Gruden arrived the first time, 1998, he was 35 and loving it. He cracked jokes, taunted the writers. He worked for Al Davis, yes, nerve-wracking. Still it was his first NFL head coaching assignment. This was what he always wanted, so how could he not handle everything with a smile?

  Now he is 55. And famous, more so as commentator for ESPN—hey aren’t you the guy we saw on TV?—than for his coaching background. The Raiders were pounded by the Rams, 33-13, Monday, Gruden’s return game, and Tuesday Gruden was confronted by the media, for a second time in maybe 14 hours. There weren’t a lot of laughs.

  Mack wouldn’t have made the Raiders a winner, although he would have made them more competitive. Defense wins. Everyone in football knows that. You don’t get rid of a once-in-a-decade pass rusher.

  You know the line. It was given to Thomas Wolfe by an English writer, Ella Winter, and he was so enamored Wolfe used it as the title of his last novel,”You Can’t Go Home Again.”  You can walk in the door of the old house years later, but nothing is quite same. Different viewpoints, different situations.

  After he left as head coach of the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls, Bill Walsh returned to Stanford, where he had earned his reputation. But it didn’t quite work. He didn’t have the same enthusiasm and the student-athletes, as the label goes, were not the way he remembered. Society changes. Sports changes.

  Gruden knows the game.  He was less a commentator than an instructor and critic on those “John Gruden Quarterback Camp” segments, one of which dealt with a kid named Derek Carr, who the second half Monday night played less than favorably, throwing interceptions,

  Still, it you’re always behind because the other team (i.e., Rams) is sharp on offense and you’re less than sharp on defense—or offense—the quarterback, in this case, Carr, is going to be heaving balls in desperation.

‘There were a few plays when unchacteristically (Carr) wasn’t at his best,” said Gruden. No quips. No double-entendre. No TV commentary. Just a cold, hard serious observation.

  “Sometimes,” Gruden pointed out correctly, “you have to credit (Rams defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips.” As if Phillips didn’t receive all the credit possible as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos when they stiffed Carolina in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.

  “They gave us multiple looks out there,” said Gruden of the Rams defense. “They have some talented people out there. It’s just disappointing. But I think knowing how good Derek is it can all be solved.”

  Is that coach talking or the TV announcer?

  Gruden knows his stuff. He also knows what his team lacks—a top pass rusher, like Khalil Mack. Funny you should mention that.

  One thing that hasn’t changed in the 10 years since he left coaching and the 20 years or so since he first game with the Raiders is that defeat remains painful.

  “It stinks,” he said candidly, “Losses all feel painful. Especially Monday night losses when you have to get up and get ready for a team like Denver.”

   What do you think it is for Raider fans who have to get ready for losing their team in Oakland?

9:06PM

Gruden: ‘I’ve got something to prove’

By Art Spander

ALAMEDA, Calif. — It was part Las Vegas, of course. Have to plan ahead. Part Hollywood. Part pronounced humility. Jon Gruden had arrived with all the flash and fame expected of, and for, a prodigal son who, with a reputation and recognition gained elsewhere, is ready to show us he can go home again.

What a production on Tuesday, at a facility the Oakland Raiders will flee in a couple of years for the Vegas strip. There in the huge barnlike building called the performance center, which in season is full of athletes pumping iron, we were awed by a video that must have reminded Gruden of his most recent employer, ESPN. Do they have an Emmy category for Team Hype?

Then, after introductory remarks by owner Mark Davis, gloating as if he were the one getting the $100 million and not paying it, out stepped the Savior, his own self, Gruden, telling us, “I’ve got something to prove.” Which he does. Which he doesn’t.

He’s a football coach now, again, at age 54, because — and you’ve heard this before — that’s what he feels the need to be. For the previous nine years, including through last Saturday night, he was an analyst/commentator for ESPN, in the broadcast booth, not down on the field.

That looked like the best job in sports, picking apart the game plan of others, for $7 million annually, rather than have others pick apart his. And he did have the satisfaction and glory of coaching a Super Bowl champion, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who obtained Gruden from these very same Raiders in a trade.

It wasn’t that he did a poor job at Oakland in the four seasons, 1998 to 2001, he was, well, not in charge, because it was Mark’s daddy, Al, who was the power in those days, but at least the head coach.  

As the story goes, Al was somewhat pushed out of shape because Gruden, with his winning ways, charming personality and photogenic looks — hey, TV knows what sells — became the Face of the Franchise. Tsk, tsk. Off with his head, said the Red Queen, uh, or rather the silver-and-black knight. 

After the ’01 season, the one climaxing for Oakland with the NFL snow job, i.e. the Tuck Rule, conveniently called after the New England Patriots lost a fumble to the Raiders in the playoffs.

“For my career to end that night in New England, it still ticks me off,” Gruden said. “I’m so thrilled to be back here. I hope people understand the emotion inside.

“I feel there’s unfinished business. I feel a lot of loyalty and responsibility to get the Raiders going again. It’s been a while since the team has consistently performed at a high level. I’m going to do everything I can to help this team get right again.”

Gruden’s first season in Tampa ended with a 48-21 win over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII, but he never won another playoff game in the next five seasons. Not that it matters, or maybe it matters greatly, but no coach — Lombardi, Parcells, none of them — has won a Super Bowl with two different teams.

“I haven’t changed all that much since 2008,” said Gruden. The game has changed, but Gruden, announcing, conducting that ESPN QB Camp, maybe knows more about the players and changes than he would have as a coach. He has been to every one of the league’s 32 training complexes. He has worked Derek Carr, the man who will be his Raiders quarterback.

And if Carr wasn’t on site Tuesday, numerous former Raider players were, including Mike Haynes, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Charles Woodson, and the QB Gruden beat in the Super Bowl, Rich Gannon. Remember how critics said Gruden knew what was coming because he knew the Raiders, his former team. 

Woodson worked for ESPN this season, on field at halftime. He also is involved in a Napa winery carrying his name. In 1998, he was the first draft pick of a rookie coach named Gruden. 

“All of us want to know,” said Woodson, whose playing career went from Oakland to Green Bay to Oakland, “is there a no-trade clause in your deal?”

Gruden laughed, “You’re going to make me want to go home, Charles.”

But this is home, isn’t it?  “I’m glad to be back,” Gruden conceded. The Raiders, at $100 mill, are glad to have him back.